Reimagining Palestinian Art: The Prickly Cactus as a Perfect Canvas

In a small garden next to his house in the West Bank town of Nablus, artist Ahmad Muhammad Yasin sits with his paints contemplating his next creation.

But rather than the normal canvas you’d expect, he’s working on a large, and very old, cactus plant. And on these plants he depicts scenes of suffering by his Palestinian people with remarkable  and haunting clarity.

He talks me through the five works he’s already completed. “In the first, there is an old woman screaming; she screams against the situation on the ground,” he tells me, referring to the decades-long struggle between Palestinians and Israel.

“In the second her hand holds a key, which is the symbol of the right of return for the Palestinian people,” he adds, a reference to Palestinian demands to go back to the houses and lands they left in the war that accompanied the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

“In her other hand, in the third picture, she holds the cactus fruit, a reminder of the patience she needs to resist the situation around her. The final two pictures show children, symbols of the future. One shows a baby being clasped by a pair of old hands — representing the continuity of resistance throughout life.”

Ahmad’s choice of canvas is full of meaning. In Arabic, the word for cactus — saber — is the same as the word for patience. For Palestinians, the plant has always been a symbol of patience, particularly so in the wake of what they call the Nakba, or “catastrophe” in 1948.
Very carefully, he starts to clean the cactus spines with a wet cloth, and then sets off on his artistic journey.

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